Thirteen Ways of Looking at Being a Mother and a Poet
A confession: I was one of those people I shake my head at now, a woman who thought having a baby would not change my life.
I was 34 and living in New York City when my daughter Meridian was born, and I had lived the majority of my adult life with — though I did not realize it at the time — total freedom. Freedom to spend weeks at artists’ colonies, to travel with my anthropologist husband through Europe and Southeast Asia, and most of all to set my own schedule for each day. I had published a novel and a book of poetry while getting my Ph.D., and I was very good at balancing and keeping separate all the different aspects of my life. Having a baby, I told myself, would just be like adding another genre to my writing repertoire.
I felt confident about having a new baby, writing, and teaching because I thought of myself as someone who was very good with time. For most of my life, I’d counted my writing time down to the minute. As an undergraduate, I calculated how much each creative writing class cost based on my financial aid package so I would feel too guilty to miss a single session. In graduate school, I tallied how many hours I read and wrote each day to make sure it added up to at least eight hours. At artists’ colonies I counted time as well — it would only be worth it to be there if I could spend eight hours each day writing. For years, I punched an absurd, imaginary time clock in my life as a writer.
A scene: My daughter is three days old and absolutely beautiful. My husband and I could look at her all day. Her dark, shiny eyes hold my gaze, and her mouth puckers then widens into what I think is a smile.
Yet I am holding a 300-page book open above her head as I sit admiring her. I am making my way through Muriel Rukeyser’s Collected Poems so I can get a start on my own poetry again, stalled for so long during my pregnancy because I felt so exhausted and sick for the whole nine months.
She is three days old, and I think I am planning my third book of poems. I believe it will be no problem to write it, since the baby seems to sleep so much. She has slept the majority of the seventy-two hours she’s been home from the hospital. “Look how much I can accomplish!” I tell my husband, while breastfeeding ten hours a day, my daughter on my lap in the rocking chair.
Before Meridian was born, I searched literary history for examples of poets who were successful parents. First, I could only think of father-artists; Rilke locked in a tower writing the Duino Elegies and refusing to attend his daughter’s wedding, Robert Lowell in Maclean’s Hospital suffering alone while his wife cared for his young daughter at home for months. All of the poets who were fathers seemed too absent. I searched through book after book in my poetry collection looking for references to their children and found very few.
It was easier to think about the fathers because the mother-poets were more disturbing to consider. Two of my favorite poets, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, were especially unsettling examples. They killed themselves. They left their children behind.
Just as, in the first few weeks with a newborn, you can convince yourself you can survive indefinitely on three hours of sleep a night, for a little while after Meridian’s birth, I managed to hold onto my belief that having a child would not change my life.
Of course after the first week of constant sleeping, she woke up, snapped to attention, and began to cry. She cried for hours. She refused to sleep. My husband and I took turns trying to comfort her, with little success.
Home with a baby all day, I found myself consumed with the desire to escape. To stand on the street corner with the local teenagers, drinking from a paper bag and smoking. To disappear into the city alone. Having lived so much of my adult life traveling, going to artists’ colonies, and just generally doing whatever I wanted to do and whatever would be good for my work, I felt trapped in a way I had never envisioned. The strains on my body from the birth and breastfeeding were overwhelming. The baby’s all-consuming needs felt relentless. “Motherhood is the gradual extinction of self,” I wrote in my journal. No one had ever needed me like my daughter needed me. Paradoxically, there was no one I wanted to be with more, yet no one I wished more to escape.
Although motherhood was isolating, at the same time, what I missed most was my solitude, the freedom to leave the apartment whenever I wanted, to read without being interrupted, to look out the window and just think. Whenever I was able to get out on my own, rather than meeting friends I would walk the streets of midtown Manhattan and revel in the wonderful feeling of anonymity. Out of the apartment, down the wet, dirty winter sidewalk, over the unshoveled snow against the curb, onto the train, its tiled floor muddy with everyone’s tracks, through the tunnel — this was such a pleasure that each time I rode the subway alone I felt terribly guilty.
My daughter would teach me the most crucial lessons about my work and self, but I was not yet ready to receive them.
My understanding of myself as a mother and a writer was forever changed when my daughter was ten months old.
On the morning of September 11, one week after I had returned to teaching, I was at home with Meridian napping on my lap, holding a book in one hand and preparing my afternoon classes, when the first plane struck the World Trade Center. For the next few weeks, like most New Yorkers, I walked around in shock, trying not to breathe the burning smell that floated through the streets, that hung in the air, that entered our apartment no matter how we sealed the windows shut. All barriers against that dangerous outside world were futile. The terror invaded my apartment through the smell of the burning and the TV news we were unable to turn off. The phone kept ringing with out of town friends asking if we were okay. In front of the endless TV coverage of “America’s New War,” that fall, I held my daughter as tightly as I could, grateful that she was too young to understand the world she would have to live in.
This moment quite literally snapped me out of myself. It shattered my resolve to focus only on my work, drew me closer to my daughter.
A scene: after the World Trade Center attacks, I force myself out of the apartment, back into the world. More than anything, I want to stay home, where I feel safer, but I know that impulse is dangerous to both Meridian and myself.
My daughter and I walk for hours through the streets of Queens. I carry her against my chest, in her Baby Bjorn — we both hate the stroller. Crossing and recrossing the long avenues of our Greek neighborhood, we adopt a new rhythm together. If I stop walking even for a moment she will wake up. Walking, thinking, rolling words over and over in my mind, remembering fragments of poems, dreaming up images, I find myself, for the first time in nearly a year, playing with language in my head. Past the soulvaki trucks and cafes where men sit smoking, watching Greek satellite TV, we move through the world together. I think my own thoughts and yet there she is, held close against me, safe. For the first time, I feel a flicker of the old freedom.
A week after the September 11 attacks, my husband and I took our daughter down to Union Square where round the clock vigils and protests against the government’s handling of the event were being conducted. As I circled the park, my daughter held against my chest, I read the posters telling of the “missing,” with names and phone numbers and physical descriptions of tattoos, scars and birthmarks, identifying features. Beside these posters were poems, hundreds of poems, written by children, relatives, co-workers of the victims, and people who wanted to express some feeling about the attacks. For hours, crowds filed through the square reading these poems.
Meridian stirred and pressed her cheek against me. This was the moment when I began to return to poetry, to thinking about it, to writing it, to understanding what it could do in the world. I gripped her small hands. These poems, “good” writing or not, deeply mattered. They were being read by thousands of people. Poetry, in this context, had a clear social purpose, beyond the latest literary magazine or university reading. The poems displayed on the fence and taped on trees were deeply personal and at the same time publicly displayed.
Contrary to what everyone told me, having a child did not make me more efficient. “You’ll get more done in less time,” they said. “You’ll have to because you’ll have no time!” But what having my daughter really did was slow me down in a way that was good for me and my work. I began to pay attention, in the way you must do when you are walking down a street with a toddler who wants to touch every crack in the sidewalk and examine every broken bottle. And this quality of persistent, close attention to the world in its smallest aspects is very much what you need as a poet, and it was what had been missing from my work during all the years I actually had time.
In the aftermath of the events of September 11, as my daughter became a toddler, my own writing was stalled and difficult. Slowly, I began to write new poems, but they made me uncomfortable because they seemed to violate the borders I’d set for myself in writing: never invoke the self directly. Walking to a poetry reading on campus in early October, another poet said to me, “Oh God, I hope people aren’t going to read their September 11 poems today.” Inside my folder was my own new poem about September 11 that I planned in fact to read. But, I was hesitant to read it for a different reason: it seemed too personal — it even mentioned breastfeeding — and focused on motherhood, on having a young child in the wake of violence.
For the past five years, I had been writing a book of poems on the Salem Witch Trials, proud of the fact that the book was based on “research,” a legitimating search for truth located outside myself. Now for the first time, persona began to seem like a disguise. I felt I was escaping into someone else’s history, trying on other people’s pasts like borrowed clothes. Strangely, persona had become a kind of self-imposed silence.
My new poems were explicitly about myself. My new manuscript, Stabat Mater, took on subjects I hadn’t seen in poems before — with titles like “Amniocentesis,” “Cesarean” — and in these poems I blended my intimate, bodily experience with my daughter with what was happening outside our apartment window in New York as the world seemed forever transformed.
A scene: My daughter is two and a half, sitting on my lap in my study with me, and we are writing poems. She dictates, and I write her words down. “Once upon a time there was a Mama and she swim in the breeze.”
Her arms flap up and down at her sides, her whole body visibly excited by our project. “Write poem!” she shouts over and over. Until now I never brought her into my tiny room, my allegedly sacred work space. The borders of all my old ideas about writing and motherhood start collapsing, divisions between parts of myself are breaking down. My husband and I set up a corner for her in my room with an easel and a box of crayons so she and I can write together.
In the Fall of 2001, with a new baby and an uncertain world situation, living in a city that we all feared — and still fear — would be attacked again, teaching classes of students who were bereft and grieving, all my old ideas about my identities fell apart.
After having a child, I could not keep writing poems about worlds I had never inhabited. Unable to compartmentalize any of my experiences, the domestic space of my apartment and my family merged with the larger world outside the window. The structures I had set in place to dictate the careful order of my personal and professional life collapsed. A new vista opened: for the first time I began to write poems about my own experiences and my own life. The experience of having a child became significant material for my own poems. But it could not be explored without an acknowledgement of the larger landscape.
My daughter forced me out of myself, demanded that I live in the world, and made me pay attention, and yet at the same time, she made me look more deeply inward than I ever had before.
Now, nearly three years after Meridian’s birth, pregnant with my second child, I can’t even remember that person who tried to write poems for eight hours a day and was too afraid to write about herself.
Now, as Meridian falls asleep at night, I hold her close and remember the words I read early in her life from Muriel Rukeyser. A mother and a poet who lived through much of the twentieth century and who bore witness to so much horror in the world around her, Rukeyser wrote these words that I now, finally, understand: “What three things can never be done? / Forget. Keep Silent. Stand alone.”